March 2017

The Rinaldi Report
     by Peter Rinaldi

Contact us: 55 Sgt. Prentiss drive, Suite 4, P.O. Box 17833, Natchez, MS 39122, 601-446-8803, missloumagazine@peoplepc.com

Change the way we fight crime

    The citizens of Natchez are distinctly aware that crime is on the rise. The incidence of property crime makes the Bluff City one of the most dangerous cities in the nation, the bottom 2% of safe communities, according to FBI statistics.
    Recently, there have been three murders, a total of six shootings, and amazingly, four convenience store robberies.
    Soft-spoken Mayor Darryl Grennell formed an ad hoc committee to address the crime problem after citizens pestered him to act. The committee met but came to no real conclusions, other than crime is bad. No formal action has been taken to remedy crime.
    Most of the outbreak has occurred in the city limits. Facebook posts talk of break-ins at residents' homes. I was eating breakfast at DQ the other morning. A young man there told me his house in downtown had been broken into three times in one year. You can just feel how things are getting out of control.
    It appears to most Natchezians that the police department is not up to the job when it comes to fighting felony crime. That's one reason why locals in the city limits often called the sheriff's office for helping, hoping to get attention from a "real officer."
    Residents are told politely they must call the city police department if help is needed in the city.
    The sheriff's deputies should serve all of Adams County, county and city. Instead of responding to residents' pleas for assistance, the sheriff's office and police department play politics with whose turf are you on. This shows you the extent of the political problem.
    While it's not fair to say the police department is full of people who can't do the job, it is fair to say the police department, as a whole, is unable to do the job at the moment, i.e., keep the community safe.
    The problem starts at the top, namely, a series of mayors and aldermen who refused to take crime seriously and two police chiefs who were not up to the job of leading a department that has problems with a community that has problems.
    The aldermen, as a group, would be fearful of rolling the police department and all policing activities into the sheriff's office. They've always liked having the power to interfere in police department activities. If the police department was eliminated and deputies took over policing all 32,000 residents of Natchez-Adams County, the aldermen would have their power diminished significantly. And they don't want layoffs of city employees. From their reasoning, it's better that all the city employees have jobs and crime continues unabated than to risk job losses. But there is no really good reason to have a sheriff's department and a police department in a community of just 32,000 people, especially when city policing is failing.
    The problem in city policing is first one of hiring. You cannot expect to get professional law enforcement officers at $25,000 a year. It's just not going to happen.
    You will get people looking to "get on" a city job with city benefits or a young kid who will take the training and a year on the force to get a better paying law enforcement job as soon as one presents itself.  The rookies that stay on at that low pay are not always top notch. It's obvious to me from my visits to the department and municipal court that some of these "newbies" have trouble reading and writing. Their reports are unintelligible. The are just not competent in their jobs. You can just imagine what kind of presence they provide in the community. We get a flood of complaints about city police professionalism at our office. Residents call Miss-Lou Magazine hoping we can wave some magic wand to fix a broken situation. But often, we cannot.
    To fight crime then, you must pay more. But since city coffers are so limited, then you actually have to reduce the number of officers on staff and keep the ones or hire the ones who want to combat felony crime. Yes, you need officers for traffic patrol, responding to accidents, funeral services, etc. But you need an effective crime-fighting force led by a chief who is himself an avid crime-fighter. On the scale of Popeye Doyle to Deputy Barney Fife, we need to edge more toward the Doyle side and less toward Fife. Right now, we're more to the Fife side.
    There's no reason why we should have two jails in Natchez-Adams County. One jail is sufficient to hold the amount of bad guys in town.
    Folks that drive through Franklin County on a regular basis will see the sheriff himself, James Newman, doing a roadblock on Hwy. 98 or some other section of the county. Newman has been doing this for years. Why? He knows criminals will drive without licenses or insurance. They will have guns in their cars and have outstanding warrants. If you stop criminals on the road, you combat crime.
    The same roadblocks would work well here. Police should be running roadblocks all over town. The aldermen need to establish a juvenile curfew and police enforce it against white and black kids equally. Surely, we know that at this point, most crime is occurring north side of town. But with roadblocks, one or two a night, from midnight to 4 a.m., you will catch criminals on the move in their cars. You can't do roadblocks just on the north side of town either, because the criminals will start moving around to avoid the police.
    Most of us go to bed before midnight.  But criminals like to stay up at night and sleep during the day. That means the biggest police presence should be at night.
    The change in policing requires a change in attitude from locals. You have to accept that you will be stopped even when you are doing nothing wrong. To fight crime, you must have a more invasive police presence, while still observing civil rights.
    Of course, going along with a change in policing would be proper prosecution and sentencing in local courts. For citizens to be safe, judges need to set higher bonds, no bonds for repeat offenders who are likely to commit crime if released, more jail time if convicted, including jail time for misdemeanor shoplifting.
    While it's still too early to see how Judges Dale and Carby will do in their jobs, Judges Blackmon Sanders and Dunmore are part of the problem because they are so permissive in dealing with repeat offenders. We have a strong criminal class in Natchez-Adams County. And a strong response is needed.  Fortunately, we can count on Al Johnson nearly all of the time. You can't have good courts, if you count on just one judge out of five.
    It's also too early to tell whether Sheriff Travis Patten will just be popular and easily re-elected or a good crime-fighting sheriff. While he has modest street experience, his main job is to be a good administrator, hire the right people and establish the right policies. With the nature of learning the job and seeing results, you have to give Patten his four years to see if he is as good, better or worse than his predecessors.
    If the community is going to really combat crime, Natchez-Adams County should establish a  city-county work-release program that's real (not just trash picking up litter along the roads), including GED education, counseling and other offerings for the prisoners who realize it's time to change their lives. You don't have to travel far to see how a good program can work. Just visit Concordia Parish and see what's being done with ministry, education, counseling and work.
    For years, Miss-Lou Magazine was delivered in rain bags to homes. Thousands of these papers were placed in those bags each month by inmates, who earned $8 per hour for doing so. Other Concordia inmates are learning trade skills in their jobs, working in the electrical, plumbing, carpentry, manufacturing and other fields. Work brings a sense of nobility and accomplishment. And nearly all criminals get out of jail eventually. They need jobs and careers or they will repeat their cycles of crime, punishment and imprisonment.
    If city leaders refuse to take action and continue to ignore the crime problem, it will grow more. More than anything, public safety is a governmental and almost solely governmental responsibility.  So it's up to Mayor Grennell and the aldermen to act. Natchez is quickly becoming "a little Jackson" when it comes to crime.     This is the year, the situation should start to be turned around. No more waiting. The problem has been growing for 10 years or longer. Now is the time. Who will be in control of our city? Peace-loving citizens and their responsive government or the criminals?